WA Labor gives brewery site to Multiplex

Issue 

By Michael Rafferty

The WA Labor government has made a renewed attempt at developing the old brewery site on the Swan River near Kings Park in Perth. On June 2, it announced that a deal would soon be finalised with Multiplex Constructions to build an office and retail complex. But public outrage — supported by key unions — at what is seen as a backroom deal could still prevent the project from going ahead.

With development vehemently opposed by Aboriginal, religious and environment groups and unions, the brewery has assumed both material and symbolic importance. Struggle around the brewery has crystallised strong public support for open space rather than development. It has also slowed the march to privatisation.

As a sop to the opposition, the government announced that it would encourage Multiplex to employ Aborigines in the construction project. Aboriginal leader Robert Bropho commented that he would never want work on the graves of his ancestors. The CMEU construction industry union has organised a demonstration against the development project, to be held on June 18.

At first sight, the pairing of the ALP government and Multiplex has all the appearances of a WA Inc re-run. Multiplex was a big donor to WA and federal Labor in the 1980s. Recently, the company was caught up in the Richardson affair, touting for business in the Marshall Islands.

But a possible WA Inc link does not tell the whole story. This dispute has significant features that make it unlike other WA Inc deals.

WA Labor, particularly Premier Carmen Lawrence, has been trying very hard to put the WA Inc years behind it. The minister now responsible for the brewery development, Jim McGinty, has not been directly associated with WA Inc as a parliamentarian. He is a new minister with premiership aspirations, and would not want to be saddled with the WA Inc baggage.

Also, the brewery site itself is not going to be a money spinner for either government or developer. A recent report from the Valuer General's Office concluded that the site has a negative value for development because of the enormous difficulties involved. These included proven Aboriginal cultural significance, traffic hazards and problems of public services access. The office added that the cost of development would exceed the value of any completed project.

On top of this, Perth is awash with office space, with vacancy rates approaching 30%. The brewery site is not a simple case of WA Labor handing over valuable public assets to its mates. For Multiplex and WA Labor, the question must be: why develop a dud and be saddled with the WA Inc tag to boot? Several possible explanations exist for this paradoxical situation, but two seem most plausible.

The first is a Machiavellian one of a would-be prince. Premier Lawrence has made it clear that she won't stay premier for a full term even if Labor wins the next election. The two most likely contenders for Lawrence's job are former minister Julian Grill and the minister for public works and heritage, Jim McGinty.

Grill looks to have avoided the WA Inc royal commission's net and is said to be building on his already solid business links. McGinty's base has been in the union movement. To become premier, however, McGinty knows that he needs to hook up with key sections of business.

The brewery site is not a money spinner, but the rest of the Swan River shore in Perth certainly would be. It is currently used for public space and recreation, but some would like to turn it into a sort of "Darling Harbour on the Swan". Enter the builders and developers.

Multiplex is clearly positioning itself for the 1990s shoreline redevelopment push. It already has interests in a scheme to redevelop shore land in nearby East Perth. Multiplex might emerge not just as a builder, but as a developer in its own right. The brewery redevelopment is a down payment on those aspirations.

WA Labor's coffers are virtually empty, and the ALP needs a war chest to fight the forthcoming elections. Curiously perhaps, the local business community has not yet flocked back to the Liberal Party after the WA Inc fallout.

Importantly, by the mid-1990s a number of new mining and tourist developments are likely to occur. The political party that shows the capacity to get these projects going will be positioned to mobilise business support.

The brewery is Labor's way of saying that it remains the party of development. The brewery may be largely symbolic, but Labor hopes that it is a powerful symbol of its development intentions.

(It is instructive that while the Liberal Party has decided to oppose the brewery redevelopment, it has been conspicuously silent on the issue of shore development in general.)

It was the search for a powerful development symbol that led the Court Liberal government to its adventurous project of oil exploration at Noonkanbah Station in 1979. Noonkanbah was an area of Aboriginal cultural significance in the North West of WA. The Court government chose Noonkanbah to demonstrate its mineral development credentials even in the face of enormous public opposition and the fact that the area had no commercial oil reserves. The brewery is also a site of Aboriginal significance; there is overwhelming public opposition to redevelopment; and the development would be totally uneconomic. The brewery has become Labor's Noonkanbah.

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